Candice Brown: It’s been the hardest year of my life – but I managed to put pen to paper and I’m so proud
It’s the end of a long, frustrating day, during which Candice Brown had to contend with train delays, a schlep across London on foot to reach her car, and a traffic-clogged, two-hour drive to The Green Man – the pub she owns with her brother, Ben.
“I’m just watching one of the members of staff walking in and two girls are dancing,” Brown tells me on the phone, welling up with pride and relief as she surveys the happy scene in the Bedfordshire boozer, a few weeks after pubs reopened following lockdown restrictions easing in England.
“At one point last year, we didn’t have enough money to pay [the staff]. We had £416 in the bank, we were thinking, ‘What are we going to do?’ But we kept going and we’ve done it.”
Trying to keep the siblings’ business afloat was just one of the challenges the 2016 Great British Bake Off winner, 36, has faced during the pandemic.
“The first and second lockdowns, I was here [in Eversholt] on my own, which had a big impact on me. It’s a very small village and when it goes dark, it is pitch black and it is silent. Then I decided, I need some noise, I need something, otherwise I’m going to actually lose my mind.”
After separating from Liam Macauley, her husband of two years, Brown moved in with friend Lauren Mahon, founder of the GIRLvsCANCER community, and now splits her time between their shared flat in Hackney and her lodgings above the pub.
Having previously spoken about her experiences of depression and PTSD following a traumatic incident at a hospital, last year, the former PE teacher was diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; a condition that often goes undetected in women).
“It presents itself so differently in women and in girls,” says Brown, who is nicknamed Bumble because of her tendency to buzz about and flit between projects. “It can be lack of attention, it can be a hundred things happening in your brain, it can be talking and completely losing your train of thought.”
How is she doing now, nearly a year-and-a-half into the pandemic?
“Quite honestly, I’m mentally in quite a bad place, but I’m learning to deal with it in different ways. I’m seeing a therapist, which is helping, but obviously I think he sometimes needs to go backwards to move forward.”
She’s keen to point out that people with ‘invisible’ illnesses “can still achieve and you can still succeed. It’s OK to go away and cry and go, ‘Oh my god, I am literally at breaking point’, but still on the surface look OK.”
At the same time, Brown admits she sometimes struggles with self-compassion, while having an enormous amount of empathy for others.
“When other people are talking, I would never say to them, ‘You should be ashamed of your mental health’, or, ‘You should be ashamed of asking for help’. It’s quite ironic, because sometimes I still feel huge amounts of shame, which is probably why I’m so terrified about the book coming out.”
That book is Happy Cooking, in which Brown writes candidly about her struggles and how she retreats to the kitchen in times of need (“I cook and I bake when I’m happy, sad, stressed, angry…”), and reveals the recipes that help her cope, whether it’s a comforting, gooey cheese and sausage toastie, a nourishing chicken tray bake, nostalgia-inducing angel cake, or Swedish cinnamon buns made for sharing.
“As I say very openly in the acknowledgements – sorry, I get quite emotional,” Brown says, welling up again. “It’s been the hardest year of my life. I managed to put pen to paper and I’m so proud of that, and to be able to share something that’s been so difficult for me.”
With the book, she hopes to encourage others to discover their own ways of coping, whether food-related or not.
“We all know somebody – or we are that person – that maybe still struggles with mental health, and if cooking is your way of dealing with it, or reading or walking or running or exercise, then share those little things.
“My little, weird, sweary Happy Cooking book, it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s just my way of doing things and if people go, ‘OK, I’m going to give that a go’, then that will make me very, very happy.”
As for now? The courageous cook’s got a pub full of hungry punters and the Friday-night rush waiting. Having grown up with pub-owning parents, she was never under the illusion that being a landlady would be easy, and insists the “insane work” is also immensely rewarding.
“You see [the pub] busy, you get people saying they love what you’ve done and they’ve really enjoyed the food… that makes it all worth it,” Brown says, laughing as she thinks back to when she and her brother took on The Green Man back in 2019. “We knew it’d be hard work, but we never factored in a global pandemic, that’s for sure. You couldn’t write it, could you?”
Happy Cooking by Candice Brown, photography by Ellis Parrinder, is published by Ebury Press, priced £22. Available now.